Monty Python Pays Tribute to Terry Jones: Watch Their Montage of Jones’ Beloved Characters in Action

The actor, comedian, director, and medieval historian Terry Jones passed away last week, but Mr. Creosote will never die. Nor will any of the other characters portrayed by Jones in his work with Monty Python, the culture-changing comedy troupe he co-founded with Eric Idle, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, and Terry Gilliam. You can get a sense of Jones’ range as a comedic performer in the three-minute compilation above, which features a range of Jones’ characters including the crunchy frog-dealing candy-shop owner, the aviator-helmeted Spanish Inquisitor, one of the four Yorkshiremen, and of course, the Bishop.

My own introduction to Jones’ work came through the Spam waitress, a Monty Python character beloved of many children not yet born when Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the troupe’s BBC series, first ran in the late 1960s and early 70s.

Set in a diner where nearly every dish involves Spam as at least one ingredient, the sketch pokes fun at the cheap tinned meat’s persistence on British tables well after the austerity of the Second World War, and more subtly at the even deeper and longer-lasting persistence of the British wartime mindset. I naturally knew little of all this when first I saw the Spam sketch, and had never once tasted Spam itself, but Jones’ commitment to his character — and that character’s blithe seriousness about the word “Spam” — got me laughing.

Generations of children and adults alike will continue to enjoy the Spam waitress, as well as all of Jones’ other characters and their often absurd interactions with those played by the rest of the Pythons. And the more they learn about the troupe and its work, the more they’ll appreciate Jones’ special contributions to its legacy. After co-directing Monty Python and the Holy Grail with Gilliam, he singlehandedly directed the next two Python features, Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life. It was in that last film that Jones managed to balance his directorial duties with those of playing the colossally obese, frequently vomiting Mr. Creosote, whose sheer gluttony results in his explosion. So yes, technically, Mr. Creosote did die — but every time we watch The Meaning of Life he lives, and we laugh, once again.

via Laughing Squid

Related Content:

Monty Python’s Terry Jones (RIP) Was a Comedian, But Also a Medieval Historian: Get to Know His Other Side

The History & Legacy of Magna Carta Explained in Animated Videos by Monty Python’s Terry Jones

Monty Python’s Best Philosophy Sketches: “The Philosophers’ Football Match,” “Philosopher’s Drinking Song” & More

Terry Gilliam Reveals the Secrets of Monty Python Animations: A 1974 How-To Guide

Monty Python’s Eric Idle Breaks Down His Most Iconic Characters

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Take an Aerial Tour of Medieval Paris

Paris is named after the Parisii, a tribe of Celts who settled on a very strategic island in the middle of the Seine sometime around 250 BC. With a wall and two bridges in and out, the settlement grew and–though conquered by Romans, and threatened by all sorts including Attila the Hun–it evolved into the city of romance and revolution.

This fascinating fly-through of Paris circa 1550 AD shows a city in transition. Still very much a medieval town in certain respects, it already has many of the landmarks tourists flock to even now.

It begins just outside the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, founded in the 6th Century, and goes down the Seine towards the Palais de la Cité, and under the Pont Saint-Michel. Houses were built along the bridges like this until the 18th and 19th centuries.

There’s time to linger on Notre Dame cathedral, and to note that the famed flèche, the spire that was lost in 2019’s fire, had yet to be built. (There is debate in the comments about whether the spire in the video is historically inaccurate, whether there was any spire at that time, or whether the spire depicted is the correct one.) Another circle of the Palais and past Sainte-Chapelle until a street level diversion into the bustling Right Bank along the Pont aux Meuniers, a bridge that no longer exists (it collapsed in 1596, was rebuilt, and disappeared one final time in a 1621 fire).

The Renaissance was just around the corner, and this glimpse of Paris on the cusp of urbanization is fascinating in its CGI-generated fin de siècle (to borrow a phrase).

The city has always been evolving–for those interested, there is a longer 3-D tour of Paris through its history. While this Middle Ages excursion contains some familiar architecture, the Roman years (when Paris was known as Lutetia) feature many large structures that simply do not exist any more. It is yet another reminder that nothing lasts forever, not even buildings made of the finest stone.

Related Content:

Pristine Footage Lets You Revisit Life in Paris in the 1890s: Watch Footage Shot by the Lumière Brothers

Paris in Beautiful Color Images from 1890: The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, The Panthéon, and More (1890)

A Virtual Time-Lapse Recreation of the Building of Notre Dame (1160)

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

Crowd Breaks into Singing Bon Jovi in the Park: The Power of Music in 46 Seconds

Hope you enjoy your weekend…

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via Twisted Sifter

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Akira Kurosawa’s List of His 100 Favorite Movies

In movies like Seven Samurai and High and Low, director Akira Kurosawa took the cinematic language of Hollywood and improved on it, creating a vigorous, muscular method of visual storytelling that became a stylistic playbook for the likes of Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. In movies like Ikiru, The Bad Sleep Well and The Lower Depths, Kurosawa relentlessly struggled to find the rays of light among the shadows of the human soul. This philosophical urgency combined with his visual brilliance is what gives his work, especially his early films, such vitality.

“One thing that distinguishes Akira Kurosawa is that he didn’t just make a masterpiece or two masterpieces,” Coppola said during an interview. “He made eight masterpieces.”

So when Kurosawa comes out with a recommended viewing list, movie mavens everywhere should take note. Such a list was published in his posthumously published book Yume wa tensai de aru (A Dream is a Genius). His daughter Kazuko Kurosawa described the list’s selection process:

My father always said that the films he loved were too many to count, and to make a top ten rank. That explains why you cannot find in this list many of the titles of the films he regarded as wonderful. The principle of the choice is: one film for one director, entry of the unforgettable films about which I and my father had a lovely talk, and of some ideas on cinema that he had cherished but did not express in public. This is the way I made a list of 100 films of Kurosawa’s choice.

Organized chronologically, the list starts with D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms and ends with Takeshi Kitano’s Hana-Bi. In between is a remarkably thorough and diverse collection of films, mixing in equal parts Hollywood, art house and Japanese classics. Many of the movies are exactly the ones you would see on any Film Studies 101 syllabus — Truffaut’s 400 Blows, Carol Reed’s The Third Man and DeSica’s Bicycle Thieves. Other films are less expected. Hayao Miyazaki’s utterly wonderful My Neighbor Totoro makes the cut, as does Ishiro Honda’s Gojira and Peter Weir’s Witness. His policy of one film per director yields some surprising, almost willfully perverse results. The Godfather, Part 2 over The Godfather? The King of Comedy over Goodfellas? Ivan the Terrible over Battleship Potemkin? The Birds over Vertigo? Barry Lyndon over pretty much anything else that Stanley Kubrick did? And while I am pleased that Mikio Naruse gets a nod for Ukigumo – in a just world, Naruse would be as readily praised and celebrated as his contemporaries Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi – I am also struck by the list’s most glaring, and curious, omission. There’s no Orson Welles.

You can see his 100 essential movies below. Above we have the second film on the list, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which you can otherwise find in our collection, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, Documentaries & More.

1. Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (Griffith, 1919) USA
2. Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari [The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari] (Wiene, 1920) Germany
3. Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler – Ein Bild der Zeit (Part 1Part 2) [Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler] (Lang, 1922) Germany
4. The Gold Rush (Chaplin, 1925) USA
5. La Chute de la Maison Usher [The Fall of the House of Usher] (Jean Epstein, 1928) France
6. Un Chien Andalou [An Andalusian Dog] (Bunuel, 1928) France
7. Morocco (von Sternberg, 1930) USA
8. Der Kongress Tanzt (Charell, 1931) Germany
9. Die 3groschenoper [The Threepenny Opera] (Pabst, 1931) Germany
10. Leise Flehen Meine Lieder [Lover Divine] (Forst, 1933) Austria/Germany
11. The Thin Man (Dyke, 1934) USA
12. Tonari no Yae-chan [My Little Neighbour, Yae] (Shimazu, 1934) Japan
13. Tange Sazen yowa: Hyakuman ryo no tsubo [Sazen Tange and the Pot Worth a Million Ryo] (Yamanaka, 1935) Japan
14. Akanishi Kakita [Capricious Young Men] (Itami, 1936) Japan
15. La Grande Illusion [The Grand Illusion] (Renoir, 1937) France
16. Stella Dallas (Vidor, 1937) USA
17. Tsuzurikata Kyoshitsu [Lessons in Essay] (Yamamoto, 1938) Japan
18. Tsuchi [Earth] (Uchida, 1939) Japan
19. Ninotchka (Lubitsch, 1939) USA
20. Ivan Groznyy I, Ivan Groznyy II: Boyarsky Zagovor [Ivan the Terrible Parts I and II] (Eisenstein, 1944-46) Soviet Union
21. My Darling Clementine (Ford, 1946) USA
22. It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, 1946) USA
23. The Big Sleep (Hawks, 1946) USA
24. Ladri di Biciclette [The Bicycle Thief] [Bicycle Thieves] (De Sica, 1948) Italy
25. Aoi sanmyaku [The Green Mountains] (Imai, 1949) Japan
26. The Third Man (Reed, 1949) UK
27. Banshun [Late Spring] (Ozu, 1949) Japan
28. Orpheus (Cocteau, 1949) France
29. Karumen kokyo ni kaeru [Carmen Comes Home] (Kinoshita, 1951) Japan
30. A Streetcar Named Desire (Kazan, 1951) USA
31. Thérèse Raquin [The Adultress] (Carne 1953) France
32. Saikaku ichidai onna [The Life of Oharu] (Mizoguchi, 1952) Japan
33. Viaggio in Italia [Journey to Italy] (Rossellini, 1953) Italy
34. Gojira [Godzilla] (Honda, 1954) Japan
35. La Strada (Fellini, 1954) Italy
36. Ukigumo [Floating Clouds] (Naruse, 1955) Japan
37. Pather Panchali [Song of the Road] (Ray, 1955) India
38. Daddy Long Legs (Negulesco, 1955) USA
39. The Proud Ones (Webb, 1956) USA
40. Bakumatsu taiyoden [Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate] (Kawashima, 1957) Japan
41. The Young Lions (Dmytryk, 1957) USA
42. Les Cousins [The Cousins] (Chabrol, 1959) France
43. Les Quarte Cents Coups [The 400 Blows] (Truffaut, 1959) France
44. A bout de Souffle [Breathless] (Godard, 1959) France
45. Ben-Hur (Wyler, 1959) USA
46. Ototo [Her Brother] (Ichikawa, 1960) Japan
47. Une aussi longue absence [The Long Absence] (Colpi, 1960) France/Italy
48. Le Voyage en Ballon [Stowaway in the Sky] (Lamorisse, 1960) France
49. Plein Soleil [Purple Noon] (Clement, 1960) France/Italy
50. Zazie dans le métro [Zazie on the Subway](Malle, 1960) France/Italy
51. L’Annee derniere a Marienbad [Last Year in Marienbad] (Resnais, 1960) France/Italy
52. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Aldrich, 1962) USA
53. Lawrence of Arabia (Lean, 1962) UK
54. Melodie en sous-sol [Any Number Can Win] (Verneuil, 1963) France/Italy
55. The Birds (Hitchcock, 1963) USA
56. Il Deserto Rosso [The Red Desert](Antonioni, 1964) Italy/France
57. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Nichols, 1966) USA
58. Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1967) USA
59. In the Heat of the Night (Jewison, 1967) USA
60. The Charge of the Light Brigade (Richardson, 1968) UK
61. Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger, 1969) USA
62. MASH (Altman, 1970) USA
63. Johnny Got His Gun (Trumbo, 1971) USA
64. The French Connection (Friedkin, 1971) USA
65. El espíritu de la colmena [Spirit of the Beehive] (Erice, 1973) Spain
66. Solyaris [Solaris] (Tarkovsky, 1972) Soviet Union
67. The Day of the Jackal (Zinneman, 1973) UK/France
68. Gruppo di famiglia in un interno [Conversation Piece] (Visconti, 1974) Italy/France
69. The Godfather Part II (Coppola, 1974) USA
70. Sandakan hachibanshokan bohkyo [Sandakan 8] (Kumai, 1974) Japan
71. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman, 1975) USA
72. O, Thiassos [The Travelling Players] (Angelopoulos, 1975) Greece
73. Barry Lyndon (Kubrick, 1975) UK
74. Daichi no komoriuta [Lullaby of the Earth] (Masumura, 1976) Japan
75. Annie Hall (Allen, 1977) USA
76. Neokonchennaya pyesa dlya mekhanicheskogo pianino [Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano] (Mikhalkov, 1977) Soviet Union
77. Padre Padrone [My Father My Master] (P. & V. Taviani, 1977) Italy
78. Gloria (Cassavetes, 1980) USA
79. Harukanaru yama no yobigoe [A Distant Cry From Spring] (Yamada, 1980) Japan
80. La Traviata (Zeffirelli, 1982) Italy
81. Fanny och Alexander [Fanny and Alexander] (Bergman, 1982) Sweden/France/West Germany
82. Fitzcarraldo (Herzog, 1982) Peru/West Germany
83. The King of Comedy (Scorsese, 1983) USA
84. Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (Oshima, 1983) UK/Japan/New Zealand
85. The Killing Fields (Joffe 1984) UK
86. Stranger Than Paradise (Jarmusch, 1984) USA/ West Germany
87. Dongdong de Jiaqi [A Summer at Grandpa’s] (Hou, 1984) Taiwan
88. Paris, Texas (Wenders, 1984) France/ West Germany
89. Witness (Weir, 1985) USA
90. The Trip to Bountiful (Masterson, 1985) USA
91. Otac na sluzbenom putu [When Father was Away on Business] (Kusturica, 1985) Yugoslavia
92. The Dead (Huston, 1987) UK/Ireland/USA
93. Khane-ye doust kodjast? [Where is the Friend’s Home] (Kiarostami, 1987) Iran
94. Baghdad Cafe [Out of Rosenheim] (Adlon, 1987) West Germany/USA
95. The Whales of August (Anderson, 1987) USA
96. Running on Empty (Lumet, 1988) USA
97. Tonari no totoro [My Neighbour Totoro] (Miyazaki, 1988) Japan
98. A un [Buddies] (Furuhata, 1989) Japan
99. La Belle Noiseuse [The Beautiful Troublemaker] (Rivette, 1991) France/Switzerland
100. Hana-bi [Fireworks] (Kitano, 1997) Japan

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in January 2015.

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How Did Akira Kurosawa Make Such Powerful & Enduring Films? A Wealth of Video Essays Break Down His Cinematic Genius

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Andrei Tarkovsky Creates a List of His 10 Favorite Films (1972)

Stanley Kubrick’s List of Top 10 Films (The First and Only List He Ever Created)

Akira Kurosawa & Francis Ford Coppola Star in Japanese Whisky Commercials (1980)

Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of badgers and even more pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

Evelyn Waugh’s “Victorian Blood Book”: A Most Strange & Macabre Illustrated Book

Most U.S. readers come to know Evelyn Waugh as the “serious” writer of the saga Brideshead Revisited (and inspirer of the 1981 miniseries adaptation). This was also the case in 1954, when Charles Rolo wrote in the pages of The Atlantic that the novel “sold many more copies in the United States than all of Waugh’s other books put together.” Yet “among the literary,” Waugh’s name evokes “a singular brand of comic genius… a riotously anarchic cosmos, in which only the outrageous can happen—and when it does happen is outrageously diverting.”

The comic Waugh’s imagination “runs to… appalling and macabre inventions,” incorporating a “lunatic logic.” The sources of that imagination now reside at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin, who hold Waugh’s manuscripts and 3,500-volume library.

The novelist, the Ransom Center notes, “was an inveterate collector of things Victorian (and well ahead of most of his contemporaries in this regard). Undoubtedly the single most curious object in the entire library is a large oblong folio decoupage book, often referred to as the ‘Victorian Blood Book.’”

Waugh deeply admired Victorian art, and especially “those nineteenth-century enemies of technology, the Pre-Raphaelites,” writes Rolo. Still, like us, he may have looked upon scrapbooks like these as bizarre and morbidly humorous, if also possessed by an unsettling beauty. (One 2008 catalogue described them as “weird” and “rather elegant but very scary.”) More than anything, they resemble the kind of thing a goth teenager raised on Monty Python and Emily Dickinson might put together in her bedroom late at night. Such an artist would be carrying on a long “cherished tradition.”

“Victorian scrapbooking,” the Ransom Center writes, “was almost exclusively the province of women,” a way of organizing information, although “the esthetic aspect” could sometimes be “secondary.” The “Victorian Blood Book,” however, is the work of a paterfamilias named John Bingley Garland, “a prosperous Victorian businessman who moved to Newfoundland, went on to become speaker of its first Parliament, and returned to Stone Cottage in Dorset to end his days.”

Inscribed to Bingley’s daughter Amy on September 1, 1854, the book seems to have been a wedding present, made with serious devotional intent:

How does one “read” such an enigmatic object? We understandably find elements of the grotesque and surreal. But our eyes view it differently from Victorian ones. As Garland’s descendants have written, “our family doesn’t refer to…’the Blood Book;’ we refer to it as ‘Amy’s Gift’ and in no way see it as anything other than a precious reminder of the love of family and Our Lord.”

The “Blood Book”‘s actual title appears to have been Durenstein!, which is the Austrian castle where Richard the Lionhearted was imprisoned. Assembled from hundreds of engravings, many by William Blake, it apparently depicts “the spiritual battles encountered by Christians along the path of life and the ‘blood’ to Christian sacrifice.” The “blood” is red India ink. The quotations surrounding each collage, according to the Garland family “are encouraging one to turn to God as our Saviour.”

One can imagine the “serious” Waugh looking on this strange object with almost reverential affection. He lapsed into a highly affected, reactionary nostalgia in his later period, announcing himself “two hundred years” behind the times. One contemporary declared, “He grows more old-fashioned every day.” But the savagely comic Waugh would not have been able to approach such a bizarre piece of folk collage art without an eye toward its use as material for his own “appalling and macabre inventions.”

See a full scanned copy of the “Victorian Blood Book,” and download high-resolution images, online at the University of Texas, Austin’s Harry Ransom Center.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Why the Soviets Doctored Their Most Iconic World War II Victory Photo, “Raising a Flag Over the Reichstag”

No photograph symbolizes American victory more recognizably than Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. Taken on February 23, 1945, it shows six U.S. Marines raising their country’s flag during the battle — a bloody one even by the standards of the Second World War — for control of that Japanese island. The Soviet Union had an equivalent image: Yevgeny Khaldei’s Raising a Flag over the Reichstag, which shows a Russian soldier raising the Soviet flag on the roof of the former German parliament on May 2, 1945, during the Battle of Berlin. The similarities are obvious, but the difference isn’t: the Soviet photo was faked.

To be more specific, Khaldei’s picture was “staged,” and “parts of it were altered before it was published.” So says Vox’s Coleman Lowndes in the video above, which reveals all the pre-Photoshop image manipulation — a specialty of Soviet propagandists even then —  performed on Raising a Flag over the Reichstag.

“Khaldei superimposed some black smoke from another photo and manipulated the contrast to give the scene a little more drama,” which in itself may be an understandable choice. But he also erased the wristwatch of one of the soldiers brought in to pose with the flag, a detail you might not notice even holding the original and the doctored version side by side. As Lowndes explains, “The soldier supporting the flag-bearer was wearing two watches, suggesting he had been looting, a stain that didn’t fit the image of Soviet heroism that Stalin wanted.”

A look at the preceding few years of the war goes some way to explaining this. Germany had brutally invaded Russia in 1941, instilling in Russia a thirst for revenge that began to seem satiable when the tables began to turn on Germany the following year. In and on their way to Germany, the Red Army, too, committed crimes against the civilians in their path, looting surely being among the least of them. Raising a Flag over the Reichstag does its job in capturing a moment of Soviet victory, but as Lowndes says, “it also captures, and then conceals, a story of vengeance and mutual brutality, of murder, organized destruction, and pillaging, all culminating in this iconic moment.” And the more iconic the moment, the more potentially revelatory its details — even more so in the case of false ones.

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The First Faked Photograph (1840)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Scorsese’s The Irishman in the Context of his Oeuvre–Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #29 Featuring Colin Marshall

What distinguishes the highly lauded 2019 film The Irishman within director Martin Scorsese’s body of work? Frequent Open Culture contributor Colin Marshall joins Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt to talk about what we do and don’t connect with in Scorsese’s work and how these films qualify as “art films” despite their watchability, not to mention the big budgets and stars.

We cover CGI age alteration, the connection to The Joker, his comments about the Marvel franchise vs. him being a franchise unto himself, his use of music, and making films as an old guy. We hit particularly on Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Bringing out the Dead, The King of Comedy, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York,  The Departed, Casino, Silence, and Cape Fear. (There are no significant spoilers about any of these other films, just The Irishman.)

Beyond just watching or re-watching a lot of films, here are some articles we used to prep:

Colin recommends the books Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Scorsese on Scorsese, and Gangster Priest: The Italian American Cinema of Martin Scorsese. Read Colin’s Open Culture articles on Scorsese. Also, Colin reviews The Partially Examined Life in 2012.

Here’s that clip from Singles about “the next Martin Scorseeze.” Here’s Peter Boyle in Taxi Driver giving “Wizard” advice. Watch Abed in Community consider whether Nicolas Cage is good or bad.

This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

How the Psychedelic Mellotron Works: An In-Depth Demonstration

Recorded music history is filled with instruments that appeared for a brief time, then were never heard from again—relegated to the dustbin of too-quirky, heavy, awkward, tonally-unpleasant, or impossible-to-tune-and-maintain. Then there are instruments—once they assumed their basic shape and form—that have persisted largely unchanged for centuries. The Mellotron falls into neither of these categories. But it may in time transcend them both in a strange way.

“Of all of the strange instruments that’ve worked the edges of popular music,” writes Gareth Branwyn at Boing Boing, “the Mellotron is probably the oddest. Basically an upright organ cabinet filled the tape heads and recorded tape strips that you trigger through the keyboard, the Mellotron is like some crazy one-off contraption that caught on and actually got manufactured.”

First made in England in 1963, it appeared in various models throughout the seventies and eighties. It has reappeared in the nineties and 2000s in improved and upgraded versions, all leading up to what Sound on Sound called “the most technologically sophisticated Mellotron ever,” the 2007 M4000. In the video above Allison Stout from Bell Tone Synth Works, a music shop in Philadelphia, PA, demonstrates a much earlier, far less advanced M400 from 1976.

Not only did the Mellotron beat the odds of remaining an unworkable prototype; the proto-sampler became a psychedelic signature: from “Strawberry Fields Forever” to the Moody Blues and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” It populated early prog rock, thanks to Yes’s Rick Wakeman, who played on Bowie’s space rock classic in 1969, and to Ian McDonald, who fell for the instrument that same year as a founding member of King Crimson. (See enthusiastic YouTuber “Doctor Mix” play Mellotron parts from well-known songs above.)

The instrument’s slightly cheesy, Lawrence-Welk-orchestra-like sounds somehow fit perfectly with the loose, spacious instrumentation of prog and psych rock; its sound will live as long as the music of The Beatles, Bowie, and everyone else who put a microphone in front of a Mellotron. Yet in most of its iterations, the Mellotron has lacked the characteristics of a melodic instrument that survives the test of time. It is finicky and prone to frequent breakdowns. It is limited in its tonal range to a series of tape recordings of a limited number of instruments.

In the case of the Mellotron M400 at the top, those instruments are violin, flute, and cello. Do the sounds coming from the Mellotron in any way improve upon or even approximate the qualities of their originals? Of course not. Why would musicians choose to record with a Mellotron at a time when analogue synthesizers were becoming affordable, portable, and capable of an expressive range of tones? The answer is simple. Nothing else makes the weird, warm, warbly, whirring, and entirely otherworldly sound of a Mellotron, and nothing ever will.

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Visit an Online Collection of 61,761 Musical Instruments from Across the World

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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